Ivan Reitman’s (Ghostbusters, Kindergarten Cop) third Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Junior (1994) is 20 years old. Yes, the buddy-gynecologist film starring the Terminator and Danny DeVito in which Arnie gives birth to a child has somehow avoided complete pop cultural oblivion. The film has actually managed to thrive in the modern American film lexicon, albeit through water cooler-brand mockery and snark. I mean, have you seen the movie poster? Not only is it a (seemingly) embarrassing anomaly for one of the most beloved action stars of the 80s and 90s, its fate has been sealed by being named one of the worst comedies of all time and being the subject of an experiment in film criticism-gone-snark that commissioned essayists to prove it as the best film ever made. So with all the disdain, you can only imagine my surprise when, after seeing it for the first time in years, I found it quite compelling.
Now this film is by no means great, nor is it some forgotten 90s classic awaiting a revival run. To jog your action-worn memories, Junior stars Arnold as Dr. Alex Hesse, a wet blanket geneticist who’s only concern in life is his research. Receiving funding from the local university, he has teamed up with gynecologist Dr. Larry Arbogast (Danny DeVito) to develop a new drug called “Expectane” which assists embryonic attachment in pregnancies to reduce miscarriages. After human testing is denied by the FDA, their funding is cutoff and research ends. Screwy geneticist Dr. Diana Reddin (Emma Thompson) moves shop (that is, her ovum cryogenics research) into the deflated men’s lab as Dr. Hesse packs his bags to move back to Austria. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to change the world (or make millions of dollars), in a last-ditch effort Larry convinces Alex to be the human to test the miracle serum. So with no university, no FDA, and no sexual relations, these two dudes armed with needle and (stolen) spermy egg, impregnate Arnie.
Junior’s first half plays out as a sort of neo-screwball, which reminded me of the Howard Hawks’ classic Monkey Business. Reitman and crew retrofit their film with monkeys in a lab, a miraculous serum that propels the plot, a pair of wacky partners, and a madcap climax when all the threads of mishap come together. In an interview from ’94, Reitman even compares Junior’s climax to screwball’s comedic predecessors the Marx Brothers. Unfortunately, Junior’s first two acts lack Hawks’ comedic precision, being chockfull of lame pregnancy puns and facepalm-worthy dialogue.
What makes this a compelling piece of American cinema is its surreal third act. All of Arnold’s pregnancy tics and growing maternal nature lead up to the moment when he is whisked away in secrecy to a resort for expectant mothers. Pregnant Arnold arrives at the retreat donning an all pink muumuu ensemble, sandy blonde wig, freshly-shaven face, and his “husband” Larry. It is here that the limp-noodled geneticist fully embraces his quasi-womanhood.
In what is Junior’s most earnest moment, Patty Smyth’s Oscar-nominated song “Look What Love Has Done” begins to play over a montage of Arnold looking longingly from his window at the soon-to-be mothers; it then transitions to him frolicking and giggling with them in the grass and taking Lamaze classes. It’s a moment of pure sentiment in which I was witnessing one of cinema’s most masculine figures (almost) fully become a woman. And there was no bite nor sarcasm nor disgust in tone. Immediately I was aware and could not stop thinking about the sincere absurdity onscreen. The scene introduced an almost Lynchian-level of surreality, jarring yet endearing. WHAT WAS I WATCHING?! Despite its ultimately being undercut by a saccharine score and over-cooked earnestness, I knew Junior was something more than its surface.
By upturning its major Hollywood comedy trappings via Dr. Hesse’s transformation, Schwarzenegger and co. navigate themes as grand as gender roles and sexual identity and orientation, trying to dip their toes into more than just standard comic fare. In his defense of Junior for Criticwire, Matt Singer says the film is a subversive work ultimately proving women’s inherent superiority. I wouldn’t go that far in my assessment as Junior’s sweetness and lack of women characterization smothers any deep musings about gender or sexuality as it hits the expected Hollywood happy ending. Arnie has his baby, marries Dr. Reddin (sidenote: it’s her frozen egg that is actually used to impregnate Dr. Hesse, making them a reversed father-mother pair), and empathizes with the feminine plight a bit more. He is transformed from a barely-there, impotent excuse for masculinity at film’s beginning to an uber-sensitive, life-loving husband and man. Despite cliché, it is the strangeness of Arnold’s pink muumuu that will forever be sealed into my cinematic consciousness.
Again, Junior is not a great film. It is plagued throughout with bad jokes, uneven pacing, and a predictably sugary finish, but for what it lacks in good storytelling, it apes the screwball genre quite affectively and delves ably into bits of surreality fit for a Lynch or Jarmusch film. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’d love to have seen a more indie filmmaker twist Junior’s saccharine tone, reconfiguring into the gem of surrealist cinema it could’ve been. Either way, Arnold’s radiance dares you to watch Junior and not find some strange joy in it.
by Colin Stacy